What is Normative?
A Scriptural example does not a norm make. David's gyrations while accompanying the ark to Jerusalem have been appealed to as a justification for liturgical dance. Wrong. David's dancing endorses nothing more than the legitimacy of demonstrative celebration whenever the ark of the covenant is moved to a permanent location. Such an occasion has not, to my knowledge, occurred in recent history, Indiana Jones notwithstanding. Likewise, appeals to Acts 2 to justify the normativity of "tongues" are amiss, for this was a unique occurrence marking the once-for-all inauguration of Christ as Messiah and Lord (v. 36). Besides, foreign language-speaking was not all that happened. Remember the rushing violent wind and the visible tongues of fire resting on each? One wonders why those appealing to Acts 2 leave "tongue flambé" off their menu of extant expectations.
A similar error is made by those who suggest that Acts 15:1-16:5 somehow requires that there be a classis or presbytery in order for there to be a legitimate church. Those making such appeal are no less arbitrary in their gleaning of Acts-facts than the errorists cited above. Before offering further observations on the passage, however, let us make it clear that we are not arguing against presbyterian polity per se. On the contrary, we think there are splendid arguments for certain forms of presbyterianism, but they are to be advanced as based on the practice's general conformity to Scripture principles, and on expediency. Such arguments generate ductile offspring, not the "all else is sin" sort. They are the "good and convenient" consequences of Scripture principles, not the "good and necessary" ones. We stand here against the assertion that broader assemblies are required in order to justify a local church's claim to ecclesiastical legitimacy. Does Acts 15 topple this stand? It does not. And neither does recent ecclesiastical history.
A plain and stubborn fact: the largest Reformed and Presbyterian bodies in the world are liberal. The wholesale apostasy of denominations with presbyterial polity proves that standing on form alone is a vanity. Some modern assemblages, though in form presbyterian, bear as much resemblance to Acts 15 as the modern "Like-a-Virgin" Madonna does to the true Virgin Madonna. Others even conservative gatherings which, if you asked them, would say they are following the Acts 15 pattern are often slick, polished ecclesio-clubs where masters of tertiary standards run roughshod over any who oppose "the agenda," the acceptable outcome of which had been determined prior to the actual gathering. Yes, these are worst-case pictures, but tragically, they are not atypical today. Of course, there have been meetings of wider assemblies, also in this twentieth century, which have provided examples of fierce fidelity under fire. Yet even in best-case pictures, a good deal of what transpires at regularly stated meetings is a needless waste of a good servant's time, a drain on real ministry sacrificed on the altar of an enshrined proceduralism. Many are the denominations that went down "in good order," even according to Robert. It is an amazing yet common deception that groups of men are somehow more immune to sin than individual men. Such a view betrays an ignorance of Scripture, history and covenant entities.
A thought: Wider assemblies ought to be under the same pressure as seminaries: do they faithfully serve the purpose for which they were created? They have no divine entitlement to perpetual existence. If they serve the churches well, fine. If not, the churches are free to pursue other methods which might attain the same, Biblical ends. No special holiness may be claimed for church order. A recent decision by a 300,000 member Reformed denomination authorized the ordination of women. They followed (roughly) their book of Reformed church order, encouraging more than a few delegates to claim the decision as the work of the Spirit (cf. Acts 15:28). A spirit, yes, but not the Spirit.
The Occasion of Church Councils
But let's return to Acts 15 for some observations. First, the meeting in Acts 15 was of two regional churches, not of ministers and elders of a single denomination. Second, the meeting was graced by the physical presence and authority of the apostles. Third, non-officers meaningfully participated in the meeting (vv. 14, 22). Fourth, the matter before the church was actual; it was not make-work. Fifth, the matter before the church was acute, as in very serious, critical. The Gospel itself was at stake, not a mere provincial interest.
The Word had begun its march around the world from Jerusalem. Now some from Judea were teaching brothers from Antioch that Gentiles must become Jews in order to become Christians. Was that the Gospel? Paul and Barnabas said, "No way!" So several believers from Antioch, Paul and Barnabas among them, were sent to the Jerusalem church, from whence the Gospel had originated, to discover if this was indeed the message that they were proclaiming. In fact, they discovered that some were teaching this (15:5). Intense deliberation followed with much dramatic testimony, all bearing on the single question of the nature of the Gospel: Must a Gentile become a Jew in order to become a Christian? The answer was a resounding "No!," as Paul and Barnabas had maintained. A delegation of proven men was then sent out with specific purposes: to disavow the false messengers who had misrepresented the teachings of the mother church, and to urge the Gentiles to refrain from practices repulsive to the Jews and of no value in the worship of God.
Sixth, the decision guarded the liberty of the Gospel. It was delivered to be obeyed, yes: "Let no one trouble Gentile believers with such narrishkeit. The mother church, following Scripture and the Spirit, teaches no such thing as the necessity of Gentiles being circumcised for salvation." But notice that circumcision itself was not forbidden (see 16:3!); it just couldn't be commanded. Circumcision was a decision left, for all practical purposes, to expediency.
Seventh, the assembly of Acts 15 was purely ad hoc,i.e., "for a special case only." There was no continuing assembly, no standing committees, no heresy headquarters established: Conflict/ resolution by conference/dissolution of conference. It met for a crisis and resolved it authoritatively, based upon Scripture, apostolic witness and the Holy Spirit's guidance. When the crisis was over, the assembly was history. (The decision, of course, lived on.)
Now, we object to the assertion that routine meetings of presbyteries, classes or synods and general assemblies compare favorably with the meeting of Acts 15 (especially at points #5 & #7, above). Yet we would maintain that Acts 15 did establish important precedents in the church to be imitated in her history. From time to time, when a crisis threatens the very continuance of the Gospel, e.g., it is vitally important for the church to gather under the light of the Word of God to determine whether something that is actually being taught is in agreement with the Scriptures. Ironically, this is the very type of discussion which is given short shrift at many modern wider assemblies.
The spirit of Acts 15 was, in most respects, present at the great Synod of Dordt in 1618-19 when the Reformed churches articulated the Canons which became known in history as the Five Points of Calvinism and again at the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s. It has also been present on other occasions in church history. But our eyes, though they look ever so longingly, fail to see it today. For while we have no shortage of modern Reformed folks ready and willing to dismiss one another over the most trivial of differences, we suffer from a virtual vacuum of men who understand that there are enemies at the door quite as formidable as the ones fought in Acts 15. Evolutionism and egalitarianism are eating away at the fabric of the church today as moths left to a woolen feast, while the custodians of the wardrobe attend meetings and obsess over the wrong insect: they strain ecclesiastical gnats. Adoption of the great confessions of the church provides our continuity with Acts 15, and a whole lot more. We are organically one with all our fellow-confessors. If denominations can serve to advance the cause of God and Truth, we will not stand in their way. But a look over 20th century American church history would lead one to conclude that denominations have a good track record for abusing, not serving, local churches, and have tended to create, grow and protect bureaucracies which live off resources that would be better employed at the local level. Are we suggesting ecclesiastical anarchy as the antidote to tyranny? Are we offering atomism as against centralism? No. But we are suggesting that there may be a better way, one that is Scriptural, flexible, and expedient. We'll tell you more soon, D.V.